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One year later
"You cannot simply insist I travel to the wilds of Yorkshire to fetch your errant grandson, Godmama," Lady Isabella Wharton said with a nervous laugh. "It is the height of the season. I have social obligations."
"Yes," the Dowager Duchess of Ormonde said acerbically, "you are no doubt expected at one of Lucifer Dinsmore's gatherings where the ladies dampen their petticoats and the gentlemen wear Roman togas."
"That was one party, Godmama," Isabella protested. "And the gentlemen wore robes like the Hellfire Club. Not togas."
With her dark auburn hair, her voluptuous figure, and an exquisite sense of style, Isabella was in demand among the more liberal-minded hostesses of the ton. She was always to be counted upon to add intrigue to an evening's entertainment. The fact that she was a widow whose husband had died famously in a duel only added to her mystique.
"That is beside the point, Bella," the dowager huffed, "and you well know it. Your social schedule is filled with frivolity and scandal and little else. It will do you good to get away from the scoundrels and rakes who buzz around you like so many bees. Yorkshire is lovely this time of year."
If the old woman had been there at all, Isabella would eat her hat.
"Then why do you not go there to persuade the new duke yourself?" Isabella asked peevishly. It was just like her godmother to pawn off such an unpleasant task on her. She'd always disapproved of Isabella and her popularity.
"Because the boy will refuse to see me!" the duchess said, thumping her ebony walking stick on the floor for emphasis. "He must be made to see his duty to the family. And as he will not see me, then he will need to be persuaded by someone else. Someone with the ability to wrap young men about her little finger."
Isabella choked on her tea. "You mean me to seduce him into coming to London?" It was true that she had a way with gentlemen, but as her marriage proved, she was not a miracle worker. If the duke wished to remain in Yorkshire rather than come to London and take up his role as head of the family, then she had no great faith in her power to persuade him otherwise. Besides, as her sister and Georgina Mowbray could attest, Isabella had a poor record when it came to persuading Dukes of Ormonde to do what she wished.
"Don't be absurd," the old woman said, waving a beringed hand in dismissal. "I mean for you to cast a few lures. That hardly constitutes seduction. He must be bored silly with the provincial women of York."
Isabella bit back a sigh. Since receiving the heavily embossed notecard earlier in the week she'd been dreading this encounter with her godmother. It wasn't that Isabella was not fond of the old girl. The duchess had served as a surrogate parent to Isabella and her sister, Perdita, since their mother's death when they were children. Their father, being a typical gentleman of his class, was not up to the task.
And when the dowager's other grandson, Gervase, also a duke, had fallen in love with Perdita on sight, and their subsequent marriage made both sisters true members of the Ormonde family, they'd all been pleased as punch. The duke's bad treatment of Perdita, which the dowager still denied even after his death during an attack on his wife, had soured Isabella's relationship with the matriarch. And she was hardly in a position to take orders from her anymore. She was a grown woman and had endured her own abusive marriage for long enough to appreciate her freedom to such a degree that she resented anyone—especially someone who called her sister a liar—who tried to curb it.
"Perhaps the new duke has his reasons for refusing to come to London," Isabella said mildly. She had said her peace about the late duke to the dowager. She knew there was nothing she could say to sway the old woman's opinion and she'd decided to stop trying. She had come here today as a courtesy, but the dowager's attempt to manipulate her was tiresome. "You did, after all, cut off his father without a cent. That has a way of dampening one's familial feelings."
As did accusations of murder, she thought to herself. The dowager had kept the circumstances of Gervase's death secret solely because she did not wish the family to be wreathed in scandal along with the funeral crepe. That did not stop her from haranguing Perdita in private. Which was ironic considering that Isabella and Georgina, if one was technical about the matter, were the ones responsible for the duke's death.
"My late husband cut Phillip off," the duchess said crossly, referring to the present, reluctant duke's father. "And I spent a great deal of time attempting to dissuade him from doing so. For the little good it did me."
Isabella looked up from picking at a thread on her primrose morning gown. "You did?" she asked, surprised despite herself. "I never knew that."
The dowager's cheeks turned pink beneath the old-fashioned powder she insisted on wearing. "He was my son, Isabella. I hardly wished for him to be thrust out into the world without two pennies to rub together. Much less to never see my first grandchild. Ormonde was as stubborn as they come, however. And when he made his decision, I could do little more than go along with it."
Which perhaps explained why the dowager had clung so tightly to the notion that Gervase could do no wrong. Deprived of her first grandson, the dowager had taken the one she had access to and tried to mold him into the sort of man her husband would not dare cast off. Unfortunately, she'd also molded him into a selfish, haughty brute of a man who had beaten his young wife black-and-blue on more than one occasion. And because he'd been told by the grandmother who all but raised him that he was always right, he'd been unable to see what he did as wrong.
"I didn't know," Isabella said, feeling a bit sorry for the old woman despite herself. "It must have been dreadful for you."
"It was," the dowager said. "But I endured it. And I refuse to endure another separation in the family. Trevor needs to come to London to take up the business of the dukedom. He cannot simply ignore his family obligations by remaining in some provincial Yorkshire hamlet to play at being a gentleman farmer. He is the Duke of Ormonde and must be made to behave as such."
The old woman pounded her walking stick on the floor for emphasis.
"I am hardly the best person to preach proper behavior, Godmama," Isabella said, still not ready to accept the dowager's orders. She was in no mood for travel. Besides, there was the matter of her reputation. "Indeed, I am perhaps the worst person to fetch him if you wish your grandson to arrive in London scandal-free."
"I care not what his reputation will be," the duchess said firmly. "I simply want him to be here."
She glanced up at the portrait of her husband and sons that hung above the fireplace in her sitting room. "I am getting no younger, Isabella," she said, her sharp eyes softening as she turned them back toward her goddaughter. "But I hope that before I go to join my dear boys I am able to meet the grandson who was kept from me. Please, Isabella. Say that you will go get him for me."
Isabella was moved in spite of herself. The dowager was a difficult woman. But she'd truly loved the despicable Gervase. And despite that love she'd done what she could to ensure that the true story of how he'd died never got out. She might have seen to it that all three women present that day were prosecuted for his death. Instead she'd hidden the truth. That in and of itself was enough to make Isabella grateful to her.
But the dowager's next words destroyed any goodwill Isabella had harbored for her.
"If you do not go," she said, her eyes narrowed, "I will see to it that your sister's match with Coniston comes to nothing."
Isabella might have known that the old woman would find it impossible to simply let Isabella make the decision herself. Unable to wait, she'd decided to use the one bit of good to come out of Gervase's death—Perdita's proposed match with the Earl of Coniston—as leverage against her sister.
"You almost had me," she said, shaking her head. "Really, Duchess, it was quite splendidly done. If only you'd waited."
The dowager did Isabella the courtesy of not misunderstanding her. "I had to make sure you would do as I asked."
"I was almost ready to capitulate," Isabella said coldly. "But you couldn't resist threatening Perdita. Could you?"
"It was not a matter of threatening your sister," the dowager said. "It was a matter of using the right tool to make you do what I wished. And you have always been ready to do whatever it takes to protect your sister, have you not?"
Indeed, Isabella had always been protective of her sister. Not only because they'd lost their parents at an early age but also because Perdita's sweet nature made her more vulnerable than most to the darker elements of the world. Like Gervase. And his grandmother.
"I suppose this means you still refuse to go to Yorkshire on my behalf?"
"On the contrary," Isabella said. "Now I have no choice. Just as you wished."
The Earl of Coniston was not, perhaps, as handsome or as polished as the Duke of Ormonde had been, but he'd managed to woo Perdita with his affable good nature and even temper. And Isabella would do nothing that would endanger her sister's engagement. Even if it meant leaving London in the middle of the season and persuading a man with no intention of taking up his position as duke to return to town with her. And the dowager knew it.
"Sadly, it is blackmail," the duchess said without a trace of remorse, "but needs must when the devil drives. Besides, as I told you before, it will do you good to get up to Yorkshire this time of year."
"I'll be taking one of the Ormonde traveling carriages," Isabella said curtly. If the duchess was going to force her upon this fool's errand, then she may as well be comfortable on the journey. "And I wish you to set up an account for me at Madame Celeste's for when I return."
The duchess, knowing she'd won, inclined her head to indicate her assent. "I do apologize for having gone about the business in such a havey-cavey manner, Isabella," she said. "But you know how important family is to me. Especially now that Gervase is gone."
Still cursing her own naïveté, Isabella rose. "If I'm to make an early start, I suppose I'd better be off."
Not bothering to say her good-byes, she stormed out of the dowager's sitting room and hurried downstairs to retrieve her hat and pelisse.
* * *
Trevor Carey, Duke of Ormonde, pulled his hat down lower over his face to keep out the rain as he guided his horse toward home. His shoulders were already beginning to ache from the effort of helping haul William Easter's cart back up the banks of the swollen Nettledale River. Yorkshire in spring was given to rain, but this year had been a particularly wet one, which had proved to be more than the normally serene Nettledale—and the ancient bridge over it—could handle. Will had decided to risk the bridge, and as a result the cart had slipped over the edge and into the drink.
It had taken six men and nearly four hours to retrieve the cart, which had been loaded down with goods from York for Easter's village shop. Thankfully, the bed of the cart hadn't been submerged, so most of the stock was salvageable. But Easter had broken an arm and had been banged up quite a bit. A small price to pay, Trevor thought, considering a cracked skull might have ended with Easter drowning in the river. Now he was exhausted and wet and starving and wanted nothing more than a hot bath and a bowl of Mrs. Tillotson's stew.
Peering up ahead through the twilight rain, he cursed at the realization that the dark shadow he'd been watching was not a stand of trees but a carriage tilted at an awkward angle.
Did no one have the good sense to stay in on a day like this?
As he approached the large carriage, which had been built for comfort rather than agility, Trevor heard a woman's voice coming from the interior of the vehicle.
"Liston, stop fidgeting. You will do yourself some further injury." The voice was a refined one—doubtless of some lady who was passing through town on her way to one of the neighboring estates. She had the sound of one who was accustomed to giving orders and having them followed. But it was clear from her aggrieved tone that the fidgety Liston was not an obedient servant.
"But Lady Wharton," he heard a man's voice say, "I shouldn't be in here with you. 'Tain't right for me to share the interior of the carriage with ye like I was puttin' on airs."
"Don't be absurd," came the abrupt reply. "You were injured when the carriage crashed. It's not as if you are in any fit state to…" Trevor bit back a smile at her abbreviated words. "That is to say, you are injured and it would be foolish for you to catch your death out in the rain all for the sake of my reputation. Which, as you well know, is not what it might have been in any event."
Reaching the listing vehicle, Trevor saw that the axle of the right front wheel was broken. The carriage horses, their heads bowed under the desultory rainfall, whickered at the approach of Trevor and his mount, Beowulf.
The occupants of the carriage must have heard him approach, for the lady's voice rang out into the night. "Hello? Hello, out there! I warn you, do not attempt to harm us. My.… my husband has a pistol!"
As if she'd nudged him into adding the words, her companion shouted as well, "Aye! I'm armed and dangerous!"
Dismounting, the duke left Bey under the cover of a large elm tree and approached the carriage. "I mean you no harm," he said loudly. "I've just come from the village and wish to offer my assistance."
There was a long silence in which Trevor imagined the haughty lady and her groom silently argued whether to accept his help. Then, as he watched, the carriage door opened slowly.
Stepping forward, he peered into the carriage and saw a lady huddled against the squabs of the interior, her pelisse and shawl clutched tightly around her. Her companion was a man of middle years, whose wan face and arm clutched tightly to his chest indicated that he was the injured Liston.
"We were on our way to Nettlefield House when something happened to the carriage wheel," the lady said, her lips tight. Were it not for her cool expression, Trevor was quite convinced that she would have been among the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. Even in the dimness of the interior carriage lamps, her dark hair gleamed mahogany in sharp contrast to her porcelain complexion. Her figure, what he could see of it, was buxom. Perhaps more so than fashionable, but he had never been much of one for fashion. He liked a woman with a bit of substance. "My coachman and outriders have gone on ahead to the house to fetch help," she went on. "I assure you we will be quite well, though I thank you for stopping."
"Are you expected at Nettlefield House?" he asked, racking his brain to remember if either of his sisters had told him they were expecting friends sometime soon. He was about to go on, to explain that he was the master of the house, when she interjected.
"I'm sure I don't know what business it is of yours," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "Unless you are the Duke of Ormonde, which you clearly are not"—she looked him up and down, obviously rejecting the idea out of hand—"then I really would appreciate your assistance in getting us on our way. My man here is injured, as you can plainly see."
Trevor bit his lip, fighting the urge to laugh aloud at her cutting remarks. Though he was technically the duke, he took no pleasure in the title. Clearly, this Lady Wharton was some sort of social climber who had come to Nettlefield in search of the new duke to beg some favor of him. There hadn't been many who were willing to travel such great lengths to win his favor, but there had been enough that he recognized a supplicant when he saw one.
If she was expecting him to be a dim-witted yokel, however, then he'd give her one.
"Aye," he said slowly, tugging his forelock in a sign of obeisance, "I can see yer man is hurt bad-like. Bu' won't do ye no good iffen ye catch the death o' cold yerself, beggin' yer pardon, m'lady."
"Just what I been trying to tell 'er," the unfortunate Liston said with a nod.
"Help'll be on its way soon enow," Trevor went on guilelessly, paying no heed to Lady Isabella's pursed lips. "I thin' it would be best iffen ye come up wi' me on Bessie."
Lady Isabella's brows drew together. "Bessie?" she asked querulously.
"Aye," Trevor said with an agreeable nod, getting into his role. "Bessie are t'best horse in all Yorkshire an' make no mistake. She'll carry you up wi' me no trouble a'tall."
The lady's nostrils flared. "Is there some reason why she might have had trouble?" she asked silkily.
"Well, ye're no li'l slip of a thing," Trevor said, widening his eyes innocently. "Beggin' yer pardon, milady."
He could all but see the steam coming from her ears. And yet she didn't raise a fuss as he thought she might. Instead, she looked back at Liston.
"Will you be well if I leave you here, Liston?" she asked the injured man. "I would send you away with this … this person if I thought you might ride with him without doing yourself a further injury."
Trevor felt a pang of conscience at seeing her genuine concern for her servant. Still she had not yet proved herself to be anything other than what she seemed. A prickly society lady who had come to Nettlefield to prey upon the dukedom of Ormonde. Doubtless she had some sort of charity to fund. Or a sibling who needed schooling.
"Aye, milady," Liston said, his pale face determined. "I don't want you out here catching your death simply because I was too foolish to keep meself from taking a bit of a tumble. Go wi' this fellow and get to the house. Jemison and Jeffries will be here with someone from Nettlefield before ye know it."
"If that's the case," she said, looking uncertain, "then perhaps I shouldn't—"
But Trevor was tired from his earlier labors and the rain was beginning to come down harder. "Come, milady," he said firmly, dropping his guise of happy farmer for a moment. "Let's get ye up to Nettlefield House. I know the master would have me head for keepin' ye out here this long."
With a grim nod Lady Isabella buttoned up her pelisse and donned the cloak that lay spread out behind her on the carriage seat, pulling the hood up over her carefully dressed hair.
Trevor offered her his hand, and though she glanced quizzically up at him, she took it and allowed him to assist her from the carriage. Fortunately, she'd worn heavy boots for the journey, because the ground was a soggy, muddy mess. To his surprise, she was taller than he'd supposed, her nose almost aligned with his own when she stepped out next to him. Their eyes locked for one heart-stopping moment, before she colored up and looked away.
Well, he thought with an inward grin. Perhaps the prickly London lady was less prickly than he'd at first surmised. He felt his body respond to her nearness in the automatic way it always did when confronted with a pretty girl. But there was something about this one that felt different. Which clearly meant that he'd been awake for far too long. He needed to get this chit back to Nettlefield so that he could reveal his true identity and send her back on her way. He didn't like forcing a woman out onto the road so soon after her arrival, but if she'd come uninvited to beg or, worse, at his grandmother's behest then there was no reason for him to feel any sympathy for her.
Didn't stop him from feeling a churl, though.
"Up ye go," he told her, gripping her around her trim waist and lifting her to sit sideways across Bey's saddle. Without further ceremony he put his foot in the stirrup and mounted up behind her, slipping a protective arm around her waist to hold her steady.
It was a surprisingly intimate situation between strangers, and Trevor tried to steel himself against responding further to her nearness. But it was impossible to ignore her lavender-scented hair and the more natural, primal scents of female sweat and something that he knew instinctively was simply her.
Directing Bey into motion with a touch of his heel to the horse's flank, he clenched his jaw and tried to ignore her. Which proved impossible given the way that her reluctance to hold on to him put them both in danger of falling. They might be atop the same horse, but Lady Isabella kept herself as far away from his body as possible.
"I won't bite," he said, unable to hide his amusement at her diffident grip. Ignoring her protest, he held on to her more tightly. "Unless you wish it, of course."
He waited for an outraged gasp, but she had no doubt decided to ignore him. A few moments later, however, she said, "It's funny. You sound like an unschooled peasant one minute, and then the next your voice has a distinctly upper-class accent."
Caught out, Trevor thought with a frown. "I don't suppose you'd believe that I received lessons from the local vicar?" he asked.
"Not for a moment," she said grimly.
"Well, then, Lady Wharton," he said calmly, "I'm afraid that I've misled you a bit."
"Rather more than a bit, I think," she said sharply. "Though I suppose the lack of proper introduction excuses you, under the circumstances…"—she paused deliberately—"Your Grace."
"I do not use the title, as you would know if you'd done any sort of investigation at all." He kept his gaze on the road ahead of them.
He felt her head shake against his chest. "I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes," she said. "I knew of course that you had been raised in the country and had some sort of foolish notion about refusing to take up your responsibilities, but I thought that it was an exaggeration. But it's true."
"You and I both know that it's not possible for me to give up the title completely," Trevor said reasonably. "And I fear that my grandmother's tale of my refusal to take up my responsibilities is, like much of her talk, an exaggeration. I consult regularly with the stewards and secretaries of the duchy; I simply do not choose to go to London or to set myself up in grandeur at the ducal estate."
"So you choose to remain here in Yorkshire playing at the role of gentleman farmer," Lady Isabella said with a shudder. "I cannot say that I understand your position, because I do not."
"I choose to remain here in Yorkshire because it is my home," he said stiffly. "I have a responsibility to the people of Nettlefield and I intend to remain here, dukedom or no dukedom.
"Now," he went on, "what brings you to Yorkshire, my lady? Are you perhaps a distant cousin in need of a loan? A young widow whose son wishes to attend Eton? Or did you come at my grandmother's behest to persuade me to come down to London?"
She did him the courtesy of not misunderstanding him.
"The latter," she said calmly, as if he hadn't just accused her of being a toady. "Your grandmother has need of you in London. She is quite ill."
"Bollocks," he said, not bothering to guard his language. "She has need of my position because she does not have enough power on her own as the dowager. And if she's ill then I'll eat my hat. She sent you here to lure me with your looks—which are quite splendid by the way—back to town so that she can direct me as she sees fit. Which will not happen while there is breath in my body."
"Oh dear," Lady Isabella murmured. "You are quite averse to the notion, aren't you?"
"I am indeed, so you may return to London at once and inform Her Grace that I have no intention of dancing to her tune."
"I can hardly do so at the moment, given the state of her traveling carriage," Lady Isabella said calmly. "I hope you do not mean to refuse me accommodation, Your Grace." She put special emphasis on his title. "Rustic though I suppose it must be."
"I can hardly do so and continue to call myself a gentleman," Trevor returned. Though he'd like to, just to prove a point to his grandmother. But the punishment would be for Lady Isabella, not the dowager. Which would be fruitless. "And fear not. I believe you will find Nettlefield up to your, no doubt, exacting standards."
They rode along in silence until finally they reached the lane leading to the manor. It was full dark now and visibility was such that only the front step was illuminated in the gloom. Even so, the house was not an unimpressive sight. Nettlefield had been built sometime in the seventeenth century by a prosperous squire whose descendent had sold the property off some two hundred years later to Trevor's father, who had been in search of a place to settle his young family. The façade was grayed with age and weather and rather dour, but it was home.
"Your Grace," Templeton, his butler, said from the top step, "we had begun to fear you'd met with some misadventure."
Dismounting and reaching up to lower Lady Isabella to the ground, Trevor was pleased to see her mouth agape. Rustic accommodation indeed, he thought wryly.
"Templeton, see that the blue room is readied for our guest," he told the butler, offering Isabella his arm as he led her up the steps. "Lady Isabella Wharton will be our guest for a few days before she returns to London."
If Templeton thought there was anything untoward about the fact that his master had returned home with a strange lady on his arm, the older man didn't mention it.
"Of course, Your Grace," the butler said, bowing to their guest as they moved into the hallway. "Lady Wharton, may I offer you a warm welcome and offer my assistance should you need anything during your stay?"
"Please have Mrs. Templeton send a tea tray into the sitting room," Trevor said, assisting Isabella to remove her cloak and handing it to a waiting maid who seemed to have appeared from nowhere.
He was leading Isabella toward the stairs when a whirling dervish in the form of his sister Belinda came bolting into the hallway. "Trevor! Thank goodness you've returned! Flossie is about to give birth and I fear that she simply won't rest until she sees you!"
Copyright © 2013 by Manda Collins